Late last year, two parents decided to take their 5-year-old autistic son out for an afternoon in the park in an attempt to familiarize him with the world around him. The outing was a success, that is until the police approached the young family and asked if something was wrong with their son.
It all started as an exceptional day at the park for May Cobb and her family. She, along with her husband and her mother, took her 5-year-old son, Johnny, to a park in the bustling Texas capital city of Austin the Sunday before Thanksgiving late last year. May said that Johnny is "moderately autistic and prone to violent outbursts and self-injurious behavior," but had gotten through the day without any issues. This is why May was so shocked when she and her family were approached by two police officers.
With his grandmother in town, Johnny was having a very promising morning, and so his parents decided to take him to the boardwalk on Lady Bird Lake near downtown Austin.
"We had been struggling for weeks with getting (and keeping) Johnny dressed," May recalled."He had been in a protest phase with his clothes and diaper, but on this morning, he not only let us dress him, he even selected his pants. Sure, they were a size too small and the legs crept up like high waters, but we were thrilled he had chosen them himself."
May remembered there being a sharp breeze coming off the lake, so her husband reached into Johnny's backpack to retrieve her son's sweater. She saw this as another miracle because Johnny allowed his father to pull the sweater on him, something he normally resists.
The family spent the next hour calmly walking along the boardwalk, where they did their best to keep their 5-year-old son out of the path of oncoming joggers and bicyclists. May remembers Johnny finding great pleasure in chucking a pile of rocks into the water as his parents and grandmother watched nearby.
Though the morning was peaceful, the tide would soon turn.
Throughout the visit, May could feel the judging eyes of other parents as she walked with her son, who was "emitting strange sounds that aren't quite words while running around in funny-looking pants. His baby-fine strawberry blonde hair was tangled in some places and my mom remarked we would work on it that evening."
Along with Johnny's autism, he suffers from a sensory processing disorder, which results in him hating having his hair brushed, cut, and even touched, for that matter. While his parents can rarely get close enough to give their son's hair the proper attention on a daily basis, Johnny's grandmother is up to the task whenever she visits.
"He is terrified of scissors, so my mom has become his official hairdresser when she is in town," said May."My husband and I assist, holding his hands out of harm's way and steadying his head as my mother trims his hair."
If only other people knew.
When May and her husband told Johnny that it was time to leave the park and go home, Johnny took his father's hand and willingly turned away from the water.
May described this as "another miracle."
The family headed back to the car, with Johnny and his father leading the way while his mother and grandmother looked back on what had been a great day. "It was the first time we had left a park without him fighting us, and [my mother] was marveling over that," May said.
May and her mother continued their conversation when she noticed two police officers walking towards them. "I assumed they would keep walking past us, but one of the officers stopped and removed his sunglasses," she remarked.
"Can we talk to you a second," he asked, "about your son?"
May's husband called out over his shoulder towards the officer, "He's autistic," and kept walking Johnny to the car.
May initially assumed the officer was getting ready to inform her that Johnny's rock-throwing wasn't allowed at the park, but noticed the officer was immediately saddled with embarrassment as he realized what he had started. He said, "We got a call about your son. The people who called were worried that because of his hair, and because of his pants, that you weren't taking good care of him."
May was not having it."Now my face burned with anger and my stomach was sick with shock." But realizing it wasn't the cops fault, she calmly explained the situation while trying to hold back her raging emotions. Both officers nodded their heads in understanding before the first officer said, "Yes, there's clearly nothing going on here."
Starting to break down a bit, May's voice, she responded by saying, "I'm so glad you were called to investigate this instead of more serious crimes."
The officers clearly knew that nothing was amiss with the family by this point, and issued an apology as they wished the family goodbye. Yet May was still not over the whole ordeal.
In the hours, days, weeks, and months following the incident, May could not forget the words that came out of the police officer's mouth.
"Those words rang in my head for the rest of the day and for many days afterward," May recalled."Taking good care of our son is the focus of our lives. My husband and I aren't perfect parents (who is?), but since Johnny was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, and, at the same time, began banging his head against any surface he could find - sometimes as often as a hundred times a day - we've spent every waking moment trying to keep him safe."
May explained that Johnny's behaviors have greatly improved, thanks to intensive one-on-one therapy, but he is still nonverbal for the most part and has daily (sometimes hourly) meltdowns that require "endless patience and skill to navigate."
The family has sought the best specialists, advocated for the most effective therapy, tried alternative treatments such as herbal medicine and listening therapy, and barred screen time, all in the hopes of helping Johnny learn to communicate, stop harming himself and reach his potential.
"To suggest that a parent of a special-needs child isn't taking good enough care of their kid is an insult that overlooks their ceaseless worrying, constant advocating and exhaustive caretaking," she continued."And honestly, of all of the moments we've had in public, I can't believe this one triggered a call of concern to the police."
May's concern only continued to grow.
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Looking back on previous attempts at showing Johnny the world, May and her husband ran into a number of issues with their son and were forced to forcefully remove him from parks, stores, and other public places.
"I think of past times, when my husband carried Johnny, kicking and screaming, away from the park or the bookstore while Johnny head-butted him, and my husband silently endured the blows," May recalled."Or the times Johnny has grabbed the door frame of the car, fighting being put in his car seat. What must that look like? An attempted kidnapping?"
There was one time in particular where May was alone with Johnny and struggled while putting him in his car seat as he resisted and slammed his head against the window.
"I was wearing sweatpants and the tie at the waist had come undone, and in my effort to keep him from seriously hurting himself, the sweats slipped down around my ankles, taking my underwear with them," she said."There I was, in a church parking lot without pants, trying to force a young child into a car. In that panicked moment, though, I would have relished the help of a concerned citizen or police officer."
But there was no police intervention on that day or others like it. No "concerned citizens calling in for help or lending a hand. Nothing.
But the police were called on that chilly November Sunday when May and Johnny were enjoying themselves at the park, on a day where her son "was having a bad hair day."
"What does this say about our society?"
Several months have passed since May's incident in the park, and the initial sting of those words has faded, but she still worries about similar incidents in the future.
"Surely there will be more outrageous meltdowns in public - and I wonder when the stares of strangers will become calls of concern to the police," May said. "I now scan the faces of all passersby and inform those who dare to stare too long that our son is autistic."
May sometimes wishes there was a blinking sign over her son's head, announcing his invisible disability so she doesn't have to worry about what people think when she should be focused on saving her son from himself.
"We need less worry and more support," she argued."We need less judgment and more acceptance. We need less of what my friend Sara Zaske, the parenting writer, has called 'the destructive police-calling culture' and more true help and awareness."
May would even argue that while it's necessary to help autistics adapt to a world that they perceive as hostile, we should also be actively trying to make the world a less hostile and more forgiving place for people who act and look a little different, and for those who love and care for them.